In my article "Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus" (ATfl 86.2: 215-238) I raised some questions about the current fashion, in certain parishes, of unilaterally dropping the canonical and traditional reservation of eucharistic participation to the baptized. The article was intended primarily as a provocation to argument, because I am disturbed by the anemic theological and liturgical reflection that has accompanied this practice. I also acknowledged that the impulse behind the practice has some merit and that it might, in fact, be justified, though I have yet to see that justification. I offered a set of considerations arrayed against the practice of offering communion to the unbaptized, questions arising from the present structural relationship between baptism and the eucharist in the 1979 Prayer Book; from my experience in parish ministry; and from the standpoint of certain cultural critiques of modernity.
I considered following up with a "devil s argument" against myself in order to get the conversation moving. Kathryn Tanner kindly and ably saved me (and the reader!) from that task and I am grateful for her vigorous and thoughtful response to my concerns (ATR 86.3: 473-485). I am delighted that so eminent and able a theologian as Tanner has chosen to address this issue, which satisfies my basic desire to provoke argument about it and elevates my hope for the renewed relevance of theological discourse for the life of the Episcopal Church. She forces us all to think harder about this issue. Though she does not address all the questions I raised, she addresses several of the important ones. While I am not convinced by her every point, her argument is worthy of careful consideration. Some of the differences between us have to do with contrary ways of reading the same material. For example: in a post-Constantinian situation, oriented by a prayer book with a strong sense of baptismal discipleship, is our primary challenge one of confusion over Christian identity that undermines mission (Farwell) or the risk of ecclesial legalism and exclusivity (Tanner)? For my part, I remain concerned to honor the truth that this mystery of Christian salvation involves both God's gift and our response, grace and the moral life, and that the "both-and" of this mystery nourishes and is nourished by the shape of our liturgical life. Perhaps Tanner does as well, but we may be working out different sides of the "both-and." In what follows I offer a few reflections inspired by her article, responding to only some of her critiques and lifting up the points that seem promising for further inquiry. My hope is that others will pick up the conversation, addressing the issues as vigorously as Tanner does, so that we can properly consider this practice and choose our path forward with some integrity. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Tanners article.
I attempted in my article to answer those who, inspired by the work of some members of the Jesus Seminar, advocate for the open table on the basis of the claim that Jesus could not or would not have had such a meal as that rendered in the synoptics and considered as the foundation of the eucharist, and to answer them on their own terms. My point was that their argument is not a foregone conclusion within the guild of biblical scholars and that, if one granted this, one could read the wider meal ministry of Jesus through the lens of the eucharist as a focused ritual coding of virtues which the community commits itself in baptism to live out in ministry, a ministry that includes wider meal practices with all people. I suggested that these wider practices are practical instantiations of the messianic ethics practiced in the meal by the baptized, who are strengthened by that meal for their mission to the world.
My argument presumes that one cannot and does not do everything in liturgy that one will do in the world (one cannot "visit the prisoner" during eucharist, for example, except in the case where eucharist is done in prison) and presumes that the link between the eucharist and Christian ethics does not necessarily require the incorporation of every Christian daily practice into the eucharistie rite or discipline. …